New Head of the Upper School Dr. Aitken Interview

Interview by: Dima Kulakov and Ian Ye

What is your background, tell us about yourself?

My background is Canadian but I’ve been in international schools for some time. I’ve lived in the U.K., Malaysia, Venezuela and Singapore so it is nice to be back in Canada. I met my wife in Venezuela and we have three children – a daughter in her twenties and two boys, Niko and Alex who are attending the college in years seven and nine respectively. We are happy to be back in Canada and the boys, in particular, love living on campus. 

I understand you’ve worked and lived in several countries. What have you learned from working in such different communities and how will that influence how you approach your work here at UCC?

Great question. It’s massive as I’ve learned so many things from being in different countries and organizations in those countries. The most consistent thing across all of those experiences is the importance of appreciating, celebrating, understanding and connecting to different perspectives. I think that has been key to who I am as an educator, school leader and over time an individual. I think that will help here at UCC because the IB curriculum is central to that. Specifically, the notion of international mindedness, global perspectives, being respectful to multiple perspectives and incorporating different perspectives into what we do. It also relates to its values of prioritizing pluralism and community.

Looking from the outside, is there some change/improvement the college needs in your view? 

Yes, every great school should be open to change and development in the interest of improvement. In these early days, I think it’s important that a new school leader takes the time to understand and connect before implementing change. Leaders can make mistakes trying to change things because of what works for them and with their familiarities. I don’t work that way. My biggest priority is to get to know this community, its culture and to connect with its members to get a greater understanding. After I have that understanding I will gradually implement change that is appropriate to this context.

Do you have any Academic Advice for students moving from online to in-person everyday learning?

My main piece of advice is don’t assume it’s going to be easy. Don’t assume that everyone will remember how to connect and function with everyone here. It’s going to feel strange and students will find it challenging. My advice is just to be aware of that. That includes the teachers and staff, not only the students. My second piece of advice based on that is to ask for help. If you are struggling reach out to the people here to support you. The natural inclination is thinking that everything is going to be normal but the reality is that it may be difficult. We as a school need to be prepared for that. 

I don’t want to leave that topic on a negative note. Having all the students back together will be fantastic. We should enjoy and celebrate it. However, we do have to be cautious and look out for one another. 

What is happening with sports, in-person clubs and major events like A-day?

The plan is that we are returning to sports in different ways and clubs initially will start off virtually. About the major events, nothing’s off the table yet. We want to proceed and so far, that’s the plan. We are hoping things progress well and that we can continue with that plan. We are also making backup plans so that even if things are difficult, we can still proceed. We want to do it but there’s no guarantee. 

You said in another interview that you value pluralism strongly and that you feel strongly connected to UCC’s “vision to reflect the pluralism and promise of Canada.” How do you hope to push further and strengthen these values of pluralism here at this school? 

There are two parts to that. For me to understand how I can benefit and contribute I need to fully understand where we are and connect with the community. I’ve read the documentation of where we are in pluralism, yet what I don’t yet understand is how the community thinks we are doing. I feel my experience in working in areas with diversity, equity and inclusion in a number of countries can bring a fresh lens to how we might develop it into the community. 

Are we looking to eventually move back to the previous 8-day cycle and are we using the 20-day cycle primarily as a Covid-19 protective measure?

Great question, the short answers are yes and yes. The big difference from last year is that everyone attends school physically every day and that there are co-curriculars. It is somewhat a covid protective measure and it is partly why we are allowed to proceed with some co-curriculars and sports. This model reduces student contact allowing us to be more flexible with co-curriculars and sports. With the eight-course model, you would be in contact with your full-year group instead of half of it. 

For the second part of your question, we hope we can go back to the full eight-course model as soon as we can. So at the end of twenty days (or forty or sixty), if we can switch back, that is our goal. We did do surveys and we received great feedback from staff, faculty and parents. However, I want to also acknowledge the students. They gave us really valuable and insightful feedback on both models so thank you.

What are you looking forward to working at UCC and what drew you to work here?

A couple really. I worked with the IB for the majority of my career – about twenty years. The International Baccalaureate is not just a curriculum but a philosophy, and an approach to education and life. After twenty years, I have a belief in the curriculum and approaches to teaching and learning. It is a part of who I am. UCC also has a great reputation. It has a reputation for history and tradition but also for innovation. The third reason is to be back in Canada. Being close to family, loved ones and allowing my boys to be back in their home country. One thing Covid has taught us is to be close to family. 

What do you hope to achieve here at UCC, short term and long term? What is your philosophy going into this school year?

I have spent my entire career in education and working in global organizations, developing the idea of global citizenship and mindset, being connected to the IB, and cultural understanding. Therefore my goal is to be connected to that and ensure that I am being true to those values of what I have learned in the past. If I stay true to that my commitment to that will align with UCC’s commitment to pluralism, diversity, equity and inclusion. I do think that is important and is connected to my philosophy and how I work.